This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After enduring years of painful cutbacks, the union representing the Philadelphia School District’s blue-collar workers ratified a new, more lucrative contract Saturday morning.
Later this week – despite multiple delays – Philadelphia’s school administrators are slated to vote on a new deal of their own. This rare burst of sunny labor relations indicates that the District and its unions can, at times, play nice.
It also serves as a reminder of the labor impasse still looming over Philadelphia’s public schools. Nearly three years after its last pact expired, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents the lion’s share of District employees, is still without a contract. And there are no signs of a new deal on the horizon.
“I wouldn’t say we’re off to the races at this point in negotiations,” said longtime PFT president Jerry Jordan.
So why is the PFT stuck in neutral while the two other unions representing District employees barrel forward?
The answer likely has to do with the recent history of the talks.
In 2012, the District faced one in a series of daunting budget deficits. To help close the gap, it threatened to lay off thousands of blue-collar workers and outsource their jobs to private contractors. In July of that year, with the ax swinging, District 1201 SEIU 32BJ – which represents cleaners, bus drivers, and other service staff – agreed to a four-year contract that included hefty concessions.
“It was a very difficult decision, but it was one that we believe was necessary for us to remain in our jobs,” says Ernie Bennett, director of District 1201. “We looked at it as giving back to the District in the crisis that they were in, as well. So it was a twofold situation. It helped support the school and it helped us keep our jobs.”
Fast forward to 2016.
In late April, District 1201 opened negotiations with the Philadelphia School District. In the past, that would have been step one in a lengthy, contentious process.
“The previous history here had been negotiations would take months, if not sometimes a year or longer. And there had always been an adversarial relationship between the District and our members,” said Gabe Morgan, vice president of SEIU 32BJ.